ESCAPE TO PRAGUE Rabbi Dow Marmur
What Gretna Green is to the British, Prague is becoming to Israelis. It used to be Cyprus, but, though further away, the capital of the Czech Republic has become a more desirable destination. And the Czech embassy in Tel Aviv, I’m told, offers a package for a fee that includes all arrangements in this very attractive European city.
But Israelis don’t elope; they just want to escape the shenanigans and bureaucracy that makes life difficult for people in general, but especially for those whose Jewish status isn’t recognized by the rabbinic authorities. Many are new immigrants, often from the former Soviet Union, who, though regarded as Jews under the Law of Return, aren’t accepted by the Halakhah as administered by the country’s Orthodox establishment, which has the franchise on matters of status.
According to latest data there are 308,518 Israelis, among them some 82 000 under 18, who belong to this category. The law now before the Knesset, advocated by Yisrael Beiteinu, the political party for which many of those “without religion” tend to vote, is to enable them to have their union recognized in law – if the rabbinate (!) says so.
Though the proponents say this is the first step toward bringing civil marriage to Israel, there’s no sign that this will, in fact, happen. Common law unions are accepted in Israel as it is now; it’s difficult to see how this new law will make a difference.
Of course, people have other options. For example, couples could register their marriage in another country – Cyprus, the Czech Republic or wherever - and have a Jewish wedding in Israel at which a Reform or Conservative rabbi officiates. Hundreds of such marriages are, in fact, performed every year in Israel. Those who choose it include people eligible under the rules of the rabbinate and those formally converted by a non-Orthodox rabbinic authority in Israel or abroad. Needless to say, such conversions aren’t recognized by the rabbinate in Israel, but mercifully there’s much more to Judaism than what’s determined by ultra-Orthodox functionaries.
The excuse the official rabbinate gives for its tight control – only about 6000 persons are accepted each year - is to safeguard the integrity of the Jewish people. The result is, of course, the opposite: many Israelis who are no less de facto Jewish than others, and sometimes more, are being kept out. They’re often bitter, hostile and, given an opportunity, will end up living abroad and assimilate. So much for the religious leaders entrusted with the integrity of the House of Israel. Perhaps they’re racists.
A long report by an Israeli journalist currently on Ynet tells of such a couple: she a doctor who came here some twelve years ago from Siberia, he born in Israel, both in their 30s. Her Jewish status isn’t recognized, so she wanted to convert to Judaism, but the rabbinate made her life so difficult that in the end they decided, albeit reluctantly, to go to Prague. Why they didn’t choose a Reform or Conservative option isn’t clear. One can only speculate that, like many Israelis, they consider Orthodoxy “the real stuff,” even when it rejects them, perhaps especially when it rejects them.
What Israel needs is, of course, civil marriage where every couple that wants to get married can be registered and then choose whatever kind of wedding they want. For that to happen, however, Israel also needs a revolution of its current electoral system that deprives from the stranglehold of the Orthodox parties. It’s currently not on the horizon.
Jerusalem 20.3.10 (Motza’ei Shabbat) Dow Marmur